Bilingualism: What Aotearoa / New Zealand can learn from Éire / Ireland

“Why would I learn Māori when it has no use outside New Zealand?”

“I don’t care if Māori want to learn it, I just don’t want it jammed down my throat.”

“It’s been Rimutaka for as long as I’ve known it!”

Just a few examples of the types of responses you could expect from ignorant Pākehā on, well, just about anything to do with te reo Māori revitalisation. Whether it’s te reo Māori on the radio or the mere suggestion of compulsory te reo Māori in schools, one can always expect the Don Brashes of the world to regurgitate something along these lines in desperate, “I’m-not-racist-but” defence of their resistance to and fear of tino rangatiratanga.

I’m not going to waste any time or energy breaking this down, as it’s been done brilliantly by so many others (if you haven’t seen it yet, please watch my favourite ever take-down of Don Brash by Alice Snedden here).

All I’d like to do is draw attention to an example of national bilingualism I saw while travelling in Ireland recently, which I think proves that a bilingual Aoteroa / New Zealand is not only possible, but absolutely nothing to be afraid of.

It seems fitting given, as I was writing this, Wellington City Council announced Te Tauihu, its te reo Māori policy. It aims to make te reo Māori a core part of Wellington’s identity, with the goal of Wellington becoming a te reo Māori city by 2040. I’m not sure what that means exactly, and the actual policy itself is similarly positive and ambitious yet lacking in specifics on how the policy will be implemented. It’s been reported that the policy will ensure welcome signs in te reo Māori and English will be created, as well as dual language names for parts of the city. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, hopefully towards something like what I saw in Ireland.

The moment I arrived at Dublin Airport’s customs, I was met by a language I had never before encountered: Irish Gaelic. It was completely foreign to me, and, unlike with other European languages, I could not detect any similarities to English that might hint at what the words were saying. My panic was brief, however, because the English translation was close-by, either directly underneath or beside the Irish.

As we cleared customs, retrieved our bags, and made our way to the rental car desk, I was impressed by the presence of Irish on basically every sign I saw. This continued out onto the road and the expressway, where every single sign was bilingual.

Now, everyone around us was speaking English, and so were the customs officers, the people behind the rental car desk, and the man driving our shuttle to the rental car pick-up point. English was clearly the main language spoken in this country, yet the indigenous language of Ireland was also all around us. Perhaps most importantly, it actually took precedence; Irish was always the first language written on any sign, with English being secondary.

I have to say this blew my mind. I thought it was awesome that, in a predominantly English-speaking country, one that had also suffered colonisation by the English, their indigenous language had a presence in their everyday lives. They might not all speak it, but it was visible, available and waiting to be read and spoken if anyone wished it.

For me, as a tourist, I didn’t find the language a hindrance at all. I just read the English translation beneath it where I needed to. But that didn’t mean I didn’t engage with the Irish language either; it fascinated me! I found myself studying the different place names, comparing the Irish to the English spelling. I began to recognise and remember the same random words, like “Amach” meaning “Exit”. And I had fun trying to pronounce the words and laughing at myself when I looked them up and found I had completely mangled them. Having left Ireland, much of the experience that will stay with me when I reflect on my time there will be coloured by their reo. I feel very lucky to say that given Ireland’s history and the oppression its people have survived, and especially now having learned that I whakapapa to Ireland too and that history is a part of me as well.

What this experience has also done, though, is thrown the debate around bilingualism in Aotearoa / New Zealand into sharp reality. It’s fucking bullshit. The entire argument is bullshit. Seriously.

I feel like every time I’m confronted with a “Māori has no use outside New Zealand”, my response will be “You should go to Ireland.” Firstly because we’re probably better off without them, but secondly because what I saw in Ireland is exactly what I want to see here with te reo Māori and – guess what? – the world hasn’t ended. In Ireland nobody’s taken English away from anybody else, everyone can still speak English literally everywhere they want, and life just ticks on whether you speak Irish or English. The indigenous language has no practical use outside Ireland, nor to visitors, but that’s not where the value lies – the value is that it’s part of Ireland’s identity, and it’s important to those Irish who do speak it and understand it, and who wish to retain it as part their heritage. It’s given the respect it deserves by being present and visible.

Based on Ireland’s example, there is literally nothing for Pākehā New Zealanders to be afraid of should we follow their lead and strengthen the presence of te reo Māori in our everyday lives. For me, something as simple as bilingual road signs has made any white supremacist argument against the availability of te reo Māori redundant. It takes nothing away, but it adds so much.

We have a long way to go to reach true bilingualism, though, and bilingual road signs is simply a first step. I’d love for us to copy Ireland’s example and reach a state where our reo is readily available throughout the motu. But we could go even further; after Ireland I visited Copenhagen and was dumbstruck by the bilingualism I encountered there. Literally every Dane I came across was a fluent English-speaker, able to switch between Danish and English on a whim. It made getting around ridiculously easy for me as a tourist, but it also made me feel very embarrassed; they’ve learned my first language as a second one and it’s just easier for them to switch to help me than it is for me to learn their first language. I’ve even learned a second language with te reo Māori but I’m nowhere near the same level of proficiency they are at with English as a second language.

Maybe it is just a case of baby steps for now, and Wellington is on the right track. I feel like the nationwide shift we need is coming; it is now so common for Pākehā to be learning te reo Māori, as well as Māori like myself learning our own language and reconnecting with our whakapapa. And, hey, with Wellington aiming to be bilingual, we might soon start seeing towns like Spiddal (An Spidéal in Irish) in Ireland, a town in which the primary language spoken is Irish, which I visited. There are many regions throughout Ireland, called Gaeltacht, where the predominant language is Irish, and perhaps in time we’ll see something similar in Aotearoa / New Zealand.

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